Lent is the period of forty days which comes before Easter in the Christian calendar, traditionally a time of fasting and reflection. It is preceded by Shrove Tuesday and begins with Ash Wednesday. In 2019, the season of Lent begins on 6 March and ends on 18 April.
Lent is the period of 40 days which comes before Easter in the Christian calendar. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, Lent is a season of reflection and preparation before the celebrations of Easter. By observing the 40 days of Lent, Christians replicate Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and withdrawal into the desert for 40 days. Lent is marked by fasting, both from food and festivities.
Whereas Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus after his death on the cross, Lent recalls the events leading up to and including Jesus’ crucifixion by Rome. This is believed to have taken place in Roman occupied Jerusalem.
The Christian churches that observe Lent in the 21st century (and not all do significantly) use it as a time for prayer and penance. Only a small number of people today fast for the whole of Lent, although some maintain the practice on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It is more common these days for believers to surrender a particular vice such as favourite foods or smoking. Whatever the sacrifice it is a reflection of Jesus’ deprivation in the wilderness and a test of self-discipline.
Why 40 days?
40 is a significant number in Jewish-Christian scripture:
- In Genesis, the flood which destroyed the earth was brought about by 40 days and nights of rain.
- The Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the land promised to them by God.
- Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the ten commandments on Mount Sinai.
- Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry.
Most Christians regard Jesus’ time in the wilderness as the key event for the duration of Lent.
Why is it called Lent?
Lent is an old English word meaning ‘lengthen’. Lent is observed in spring, when the days begin to get longer.
The colour purple
Purple is the symbolic colour used in some churches throughout Lent, for drapes and altar frontals.
Purple is used for two reasons: firstly because it is associated with mourning and so anticipates the pain and suffering of the crucifixion, and secondly because purple is the colour associated with royalty, and celebrates Christ’s resurrection and sovereignty.
East and West
Both the eastern and western churches observe Lent but they count the 40 days differently.
The western church excludes Sundays (which is celebrated as the day of Christ’s resurrection) whereas the eastern church includes them.
The churches also start Lent on different days.
Western churches start Lent on the 7th Wednesday before Easter Day (called Ash Wednesday).
Eastern churches start Lent on the Monday of the 7th week before Easter and end it on the Friday 9 days before Easter. Eastern churches call this period the ‘Great Lent’.
The last week of Lent is called Holy Week.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent for Western Christian churches. It’s a day of penitence to clean the soul before the Lent fast.
Roman Catholic, Anglican, and some other churches hold special services at which worshippers are marked with ashes as a symbol of death and sorrow for sin.
Ash Wednesday services
The service draws on the ancient Biblical traditions of covering one’s head with ashes, wearing sackcloth, and fasting.
The mark of ashes
In Ash Wednesday services churchgoers are marked on the forehead with a cross of ashes as a sign of penitence and mortality.
The use of ashes, made by burning palm crosses from the previous Palm Sunday, is very symbolic.
Traditional Ash Wednesday prayer
God our Father, you create us from the dust of the earth.
Grant that these ashes may be for us a sign of our penitence, and a symbol of our mortality.
The minister or priest marks each worshipper on the forehead, and says remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return, or a similar phrase based on God’s sentence on Adam in Genesis 3:19.
The modern practice in Roman Catholic churches nowadays is for the priest to dip his right thumb in the ashes and, making the Sign of the Cross on each person’s forehead, say: Remember, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return (or a variation on those words).
Keeping the mark
At some churches the worshippers leave with the mark still on their forehead so that they carry the sign of the cross out into the world.
At other churches the service ends with the ashes being washed off as a sign that the participants have been cleansed of their sins.
Symbolism of the ashes
The marking of their forehead with a cross made of ashes reminds each churchgoer that:
- Death comes to everyone
- They should be sad for their sins
- God made the first human being by breathing life into dust, and without God, human beings are nothing more than dust and ashes
They must change themselves for the better
The shape of the mark and the words used are symbolic in other ways:
- The cross is a reminder of the mark of the cross made at baptism
- The phrase often used when the ashes are administered reminds Christians of the doctrine of original sin
- The cross of ashes may symbolise the way Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as atonement for sin replaces the Old Testament tradition of making burnt offerings to atone for sin
Where the ashes come from
The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are made by burning the palm crosses that were blessed on the previous year’s Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday celebrates Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, so when the crosses used in the Palm Sunday service are converted to ashes, the worshippers are reminded that defeat and crucifixion swiftly followed triumph.
But using the ashes to mark the cross on the believer’s forehead symbolises that through Christ’s death and resurrection, all Christians can be free from sin.
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